As I sat inside the Royal Court Theatre in London, I couldn’t work out if I was the intended audience of the play I had come to see. Jews. In their Own Words (which runs until 22 October) by the journalist Jonathan Freedland is, partly, a mea culpa by the theatre. Last year, the Royal Court staged Rare Earth Mettle by Al Smith, which featured a greedy, power-hungry billionaire with the Jewish-sounding name Hershel Fink. The name was changed after accusations of anti-Semitism. Freedland’s play, based on real interviews with 12 British Jews, explains how anti-Semitic tropes might lead a playwright to give a character such a name. A man emerges on stage, and begins to converse with “the creator”. “Your name is Hershel Fink,” says a voice, “You are asking how you came to be.”
[See also: Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers brings the darker side of Englishness to Glyndebourne]
Through Freedland’s interviews, the 12 characters, including my esteemed former colleague Stephen Bush and the former Labour MP Luciana Berger, tell us their thoughts on prejudicial myths that Jews are wealthy, powerful, and have a hankering for Christian blood. Alongside their testimonies, the characters act out Jewish history as a masked Greek chorus, and sing a cabaret number (“it was the Jews!”) in sparkly tailcoats. We hear tales of racism, loss and persecution – the kind embedded in the average Jewish family. Two supporting characters loomed large: Twitter and Jeremy Corbyn. Tweets were employed – a little too much, for my taste – to show that the oldest hatred is still with us. Berger’s account of leaving Labour was a reminder of why many were uncomfortable under Corbyn’s leadership.
My companion for the evening, a Northern Irish friend, found the show illuminating. I, on the other hand, being a Jew, felt a keen familiarity. Awareness of anti-Semitism is so intrinsic to my identity that I found myself nodding along, as if listening to a song I know well. If the play is intended to help people empathise with Jews, here’s hoping a broad audience will see it.
[See also: Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s masterpiece, takes on new meaning in 2022]
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency